Private schools: help in picking the right one

February 21

Ann Dolin. (Laura Lakeway/For the Washington Post)

For many parents, deciding whether private school is right for their child and which schools to apply to is overwhelming. A new book, “A Guide to Private Schools: The Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Maryland Edition” ($25.95, iUniverse), can help.

The book, by Ann Dolin, who founded the tutoring company Educational Connections, offers strategies and advice on applications, interviewing, ideas from parents and kids, and a detailed guide to the Washington region’s private schools. Here are tips from “A Guide to Private Schools.”

I have worked with hundreds of students in the D.C. area to help them and their families in the search for the right private school.

When I first meet with families, often they are considering schools by one simple factor: reputation. It is understandable. Ultimately, parents are preparing their children for the future, and parents want to ensure their child has access to the “best” school.

However, there is an important distinction between “best” and “best fit.” In determining which schools are a fit, families should consider factors such as class size, opportunities for leadership and, of course, the academic needs of the child.

In the end, a well-crafted list will contain schools that meet the child’s unique academic, social and emotional needs, as well as give him or her a solid chance of acceptance.

This can be done by categorizing each school into one of three groups: reach, target and safety.

Reach: These are the highly competitive schools that are academically challenging. Reach schools are those that are highly selective and have low enrollment rates, compared with the number of applications they receive. These schools may be long shots depending on the strength of your child’s application.

Target: Target schools are realistic options. They provide an excellent education, and their curriculum may be just as challenging as reach schools. You have a good sense that admittance is likely, but is definitely not a sure thing.

Safety: Your child has a high probability of being accepted to these schools. This isn’t to say their academics aren’t as strong; it’s just that their admissions aren’t as selective.

How do you know which category each school fits into? A reach school for one student may not be for another; however, there are simple considerations that apply to all applicants:

Compare grades

One of the most important factors is grades. This is the easiest way to distinguish students and to weed out anyone who’s unqualified. This is especially true of competitive middle and high schools.

If a student has not succeeded previously in school, it’s hard to argue that he or she should get a spot over someone who has demonstrated academic success. This is an easy way for schools to make the first cut when looking at a pool of applicants. Be aware that different schools have different standards; strong arts schools may value musical ability as much as grades for some students, but in general, grades and test scores are the first factor in an admission board’s decision.

As you tour schools, it’s okay to ask about grades. You may not get a specific answer such as, “Students need to have a 3.8 GPA,” but you may learn that they are looking for students with a solid A/B average. If they are, and your child earns B’s and C’s, then this school could be considered a reach.

Test scores matter

Most schools require some type of standardized testing as part of the application. If your student is applying to fifth grade or higher and the school requires the SSAT, have him or her take a diagnostic test (visit www.ssat.org) to see where his or her score falls. A practice test can be done early in the season before your child takes the actual test in December. If the scores aren’t what you anticipated, the diagnostic test is a useful tool for figuring out what your student should work on before taking the actual SSAT.

Determine class space

It is important to know what your child’s chances of acceptance are. Sometimes it comes down to how many slots a school has available and how many children apply. For example, if the school gets 100 applications for 10 slots, five for boys and five for girls, you may be looking at a reach school solely based on numbers.

In cases like this, don’t panic, because the number of students accepted is always much higher. Regardless, be cognizant that schools with low enrollment rates are inherently harder to get into. Even students with straight A’s, very high test scores, great recommendations and expertise in a sport can get waitlisted. That’s why having a target school or two on your list is very important.

Acceptance vs. enrollment

Take note that there is a big difference between acceptance and enrollment. Acceptance refers to the number of students who have been sent an acceptance letter; however, not all of these students will choose to attend that school. Those who do agree to attend count as enrollment. For example, one local school has space for about 110 boys in the ninth grade. It receives more than 400 applications. It accepts about 200 students and enrolls 110.

Often, parents become fixated on the enrollment number. They may fret: “My son will probably not get in! He has only a 25 percent chance.” Not so fast. In reality, his chances are closer to 50 percent. Schools will reveal the number of spaces they have available for each particular grade level and will typically tell you how many applications they receive, but not all will give out their acceptance rate. In any case, it doesn’t hurt to ask. This information will help you better understand your child’s chances of getting in.

In the end, categorizing schools is certainly more of an art than a science. Parents may not know their child’s chances of gaining acceptance to any one particular school, but having a balance of schools on their list can ensure a successful application process.

I encourage families to have two reaches, two targets and possibly a safety school. In fact, you may not need a safety school if you have a larger number of target schools, but be sure not to overestimate your child’s chances. Remember, a safety school is one that you still feel would be a great match for your child. Do not apply just to have an extra option as a “backup” if you don’t honestly see your child attending that school.

When considering reach schools, it’s one thing to have on your list schools that might be a challenge to get into, but in which your child will thrive. It’s another thing to include places where your child may struggle academically to keep up. That’s not fun for anyone.

Be realistic and thoughtful when it comes to reach schools.

About Ann Dolin

Ann Dolin founded the tutoring company Educational Connections in 1998 after teaching for six years in Fairfax County public schools. The company employs 200 tutors and has worked with 8,000 students.

Dolin, who holds a bachelor’s degree in child psychology/
elementary education and a master’s in special education, sits on the local boards of CHADD (Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and the International Dyslexia Association.

Her last book, “Homework Made Simple — Tips, Tools and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework,” won the Independent Publishers Association’s 2011 parenting book of the year award. She has appeared frequently on national radio and local television. Dolin lives in Virginia with her husband and two children.

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